On a breezy, somewhat chilly Friday evening in Havana, Cuba, a contingent of American tourists converges on El Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana's museum of fine art.
The group is traveling on a special license from the U.S. government, visiting the island nation for the opening of Mario Sanchez's "Una Raza-One Race" exhibit.
Located directly across the street from the Museum of the Revolution, the cavernous walls of the art museum lead visitors down long corridors covered with artwork of all kinds. It was here that the beginning of a seemingly impossible dream came to fruition for gallerist/curator Nance Frank of the Gallery on Greene.
"This is my life's work," she said just prior to the opening. "Mario and I worked together for 10 years before he died in 2005. It has taken 20 long, yet fulfilling years to help bring to his work the world prominence it deserves, and Havana is the perfect location."
For the first time in more than five decades, the work of an American, Mario Sanchez, a native of Key West born in 1908, the son of a cigar maker, went on public display here.
The underlying theme of Sanchez's work is that of acceptance of all people, regardless of race, color or religion.
Throughout the now-invaluable snapshots of life in Key West in the middle and late 20th century, people from every walk of life are seen interacting a mere 90 miles from the birthplace of Sanchez's parents.
Thirty of the Cuban-American's wooden carvings were gathered from private collections around the country and put on display. More importantly, the exhibit is the start of a bonafide cultural exchange between Havana and Key West.
Roughly 200 attendees, ranging from art collectors to tourists, to locals to international press, gathered Friday evening near the expansive and open courtyard before heading indoors to view Sanchez's work, known as "intaglio."
Among the dozens of carvings is one of the earliest works, "El Galano," a tribute to Sanchez's contemporary, Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." The image depicts a bedraggled fisherman at sea with a huge, shark-bitten Marlin lashed to the side of his rickety boat. On the back, Sanchez wrote a brief poem to help tell the tale.
The final four lines are: "This tale is applicable even if one doesn't go fishing. On land there are many sharks without scales, but with the same intentions."
Sanchez dated the piece November 1952.
Key West art collectors David and Susan Goode have three of their pieces hanging in the exhibit.
"For me, 'El Galano' represents bringing together many things that Mario Sanchez believed in," David Goode said. "The star-studded history of ownership, the Key West-Cuba connection with Hemingway, and his thoughts about mankind expressed in the poem on the back all make it an extraordinary work of art."
During the evening's opening remarks, Monroe County Mayor Sylvia Murphy thanked the museum's curators for their hospitality, and extended a warm welcome to several Cuban artists who will visit Key West during the third week of February.
Making the trip to Key West will be Mendive, Roberto Fabelo, Rocio Garcia, Sandra Ramos, Reynero Tamayo, Ruben Alpizar and two artistic teams -- "The Merger" and "Stainless."
The former is a group of three 20-somethings with obvious talent and drive who have recently opened a studio half a block from the famed Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the Vedado section of Havana. The group is composed of two artists living in Cuba who have teamed with a Miami-based artist to create truly unique pieces that start as paintings and become highly polished metal sculptures.
Hosting the artists' works in Key West are the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, The Studios of Key West, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, The Oldest House and the Gato Building.
The diversity of works among the Cuban artists is obvious to even the most casual observer. In Roberto Fabelo's studio, a huge ball of animal bones, measuring roughly four feet in diameter, hangs from the ceiling above a six-foot long cockroach that sports a man's head. In the next room, a six-foot painting depicts two topless women riding a chicken and is titled "Fantastic Voyage Key West."
At Sandra Ramos' home in the Havana neighborhood of Kholy, the artist, who is currently showing in Italy, depicts the woes of immigration using handmade suitcases to help illustrate the point, as well as interactive pieces that tell a story on their own.
Reynero Tamayo considers himself a comedic artist. His work certainly reflects that, but he is also a huge lover of baseball. The collection he will bring to Key West is sure to impress. Images of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and others in action are mixed with baseball-themed works with lots of room for interpretation.
Also traveling with the group of Americans is Jed Dodds, executive director of Studios of Key West. This is Dodds' first trip to the island, and he is well aware of the importance of the exchange.
"It's amazing to feel the excitement and enthusiasm of being with a group of world-class artists on the streets of Havana and at the national gallery, and we look forward to hosting the artists in Key West," he said. "Everyone realizes something historical is happening."